Thursday, August 24, 2006

ghost bands, seiko wallets, and bikini lines

Glenna woke me up in the middle of the night. The first thing that crossed my mind was an accident, a fire. There must be a fire. But then, I remembered I was inside a tent pitched on the peak of a mountain and it had been raining all night. How could we have fire? Groggy, I pushed myself up from the sleeping bag which was spread out inside the wet tent. Glenna was holding up the tent flaps to reveal the star-studded night sky. The rain had stopped. Insects were chirping monotonously. The fog was gone. It had hovered around us while we were passing around the huge bottle of Red Horse Beer under the canopy which our guide had set up.

“Look at the sky,” Glenna was saying. For a moment, I forgot the damned, protruding root on which I had been lying all night. “Wow,” I simply said. The stars weren't as bright as they appear when you're on the beach but they were numerous enough, and marvelous, too, something that is not visible in Manila's nebulous skies. Eric, who was sleeping beside me, got up, too. A moment later, the three of us were outside the tent, trying to find where the hell Orion's belt was. Glenna was wrapped in her apple green blanket (which had provided us warmth while we were sleeping) and I was swathed with my black sarong and jacket. We had set up camp a few meters from the cliff. From this vantage point, we could see the moonlit treetops with white fog clinging on them like purified mucus.

Looming against the slightly luminous horizon was another peak, Mount Nabio, a quarrying site of expensive pink marble called “Tea Rose.” Mang Carling, our guide, had told us that it is being exported to China because the Chinese, superstitious as they are, believe it brings good luck.

“We've been running short on water since quarrying started,” he claimed. “Our water supply mainly comes from that mountain.” Mang Carling shook his head and looked at Mount Nabio whose sides had been lopped off, exposing the prized marble. One person's luck is another's misfortune, indeed.

I had thought the rain wouldn't stop. It had started a few minutes before we reached the summit, which was already after sunset.Glenna took a respite just before we reached the top. “You guys can go ahead,” she said. There was a slight drizzle and it was dark all around. I don't exactly know how the hell she planned to catch up with us.

Earlier, she was so exhausted she almost threw away my small box of chocolate cookies, which, at that time, was the only thing she was carrying, after having given her load to Mang Carling. As for me, I was tempted to just chuck the huge bottle of Red Horse Beer I had in my right hand. All I wanted was a swig of cold water from my canteen. Beer was of no value to me then.

Upon reaching the peak, we cooked rice, instant noodles, and heated the canned sisig. Actually, it was Eric who did most of the cooking. I merely watched or pretended to be helping out. I would've probably ruined our dinner if I had actually lent him a hand.

It was the most sumptuous meal I've ever had. Our exhaustion and the mountain's eerie coldness made everything seem delicious. Food that I would not even dare touch in less spartan circumstances were like gourmet dishes up there, mouth-watering and ten times more satisfying. None of us thought of bringing plates so we were forced to eat from the small cauldron. This is perhaps how soldiers feel, Allan later commented. Cooped up under a canopy tied to tree branches, we were more like stragglers waiting for the war to end.

The rain pelted down harshly after dinner. The fog got so thick we could only see hazy images of what lay beyond it. In this sorry plight, we started cracking age-old jokes about horny nuns, Boy Bastos (Lecherous Joe), and human excretions. I've heard most of these jokes a thousand times before but it was fun laughing at them again, especially in this campsite where a slight gust of wind splashed rainwater on our faces and the mud, onto which our wet feet were firmly planted, sent tickly little insects up our legs. Puddles of water were accummulating all around us. And our tents were slowly being flooded. None of us, though, felt the need to panic or freak out. We just stayed there under the canopy, watching the swaying trees as if they were part of a huge video wall.

Because I had just recovered from the flu, I wasn't too keen on joining them. I had thought that it would be so cold I would have fever again. I soon found out that I would be way too exhausted to worry about getting sick. And, of course, the exhiliration that followed after having reached the summit was enough to scare away my viral infection. All throughout the chilly night, we could hear the rushing waters of the river down below. Snaking its way all around the mountain, this river feeds the residential areas dotting the foot of Mount Manalmon. Before we finally left Biak-na-Bato, we enjoyed swimming in this river despite its brownish green color. A bamboo raft that was tethered near the bank served as our resting place (for the river was quite deep). I tried swimming across the river a couple of times, careful not to be carried off downstream by the current. Glenna and Noelle mostly stayed on the raft. From the snatches of conversations I overheard, they were talking about the former's tattoo, her motorcycling days, and Brazilian bare, which reminded me to have my head shaved as soon as I got back to Manila. (Don't ask me what my shaved head has to do with their bikini lines.)

Mount Manalmon in historic Biak-na-Bato was the mountain hideout of Filipino revolutionaries who fought against Spanish forces in the nineteenth century. It was also the site of the peace treaty between the Spanish and the Filipinos on August 9, 1897. It was Eric who combed the net to find this mountain. He had excitedly showed me pics of this place in his computer and then proceeded to discuss how we would get there. It seemed like a thrilling adventure. At least, it was relatively safer than our original destination, Mount Pinatubo which, I heard, was a bit difficult to climb, especially in this weather.

Mount Manalmon was comparatively easy to climb. In fact, Eric said that seasoned mountaineers won't even categorize it a Level 1 trek. It was just a fun trek, plain and simple. Everest conquerors Leo Oracion and Erwin 'Pastor' Ermata scaled this mountain in a record time of thirty minutes. To my reckoning, our little group of six (including our guide) took around an hour and a half to reach the top.

The narrow tracks were fringed with lush bushes and thick bamboos. Don't touch the bamboo's hairy part, Mang Carling had warned, it can make your skin itch. But the warning came too late. I think Noelle and Glenna had already touched it. Some parts of the track sloped steeply up, which was not really a problem for me. What I found really scary was the descent.

Having a slight acrophobia, I dreaded the way down. My knees were like jelo quivering on a frying pan as I precariously inched my way on the muddy path, sometimes planting both hands on the mud to support my body. It didn't help to see that some parts of the track opened out to a cliff on one side. I would've probably come tumbling down to my death if I had so much as lost my footing. Eric noticed my snail pace so he walked right in front of me and instructed me to hold on to his backpack for support in case I felt I needed it.

Mang Carling suggested that we take another route going down. It was less steep but we needed to cross the river with a strong current and pass through a cave. That sounded exciting so we all agreed. Through a path made up of sharp boulders, we crawled down to the riverbank. We were told to hold our bags up our heads as the water was chest high. And the current can carry you off if you stray away from the designated path. Like soldiers on their way to some jungle combat, we braved the waters and crossed the river.

Looming high on the other side was a humungous rock formation crowned by the entrance of the cave. Like one of those dark medieval fortresses perched beside a precipice, it looked formidable and daunting. But the actual ascent was quite easy despite the razor-sharp rocks. It has undoubtedly been climbed a thousand times before by those who came before us. Noelle even saw some graffiti on the rocks dating back to 1939.

Upon reaching the entrance of the cave, a yawning aperture with moss covered stalactites, we lingered for a while to admire the magnificence of the place. Mang Carling was quick to announce that it had been the cave of some birdie character in a birdie fantasy soap on local TV. I believe the soap was entitled Mulawin (sorry, I'm not really into local pop culture, it's nausea-inducing for me). True enough, when we entered the cave, there were still some long bunting-like décor hung around the place. The bastards didn't even care to clean up after their shoot. Like a true tourist guide, Mang Carling pointed out the bullet marks on the cave walls. Those were from the last war, he said. I wondered how many died within those walls. I can only hope that the birdie soap's production crew were among them.

At the other opening of the cave was a wooden placard marking the spot where a rock formation that uncannily looked like some Catholic saint was found in the nineteenth century. The rock, it claimed, is now in Rome, probably a curious museum artifact from a (still) fiercely Catholic country, if not an object of pious devotion. The other entrance of the cave opened out to an extremely slippery flight of steps with wooden crosses at regular intervals. “Stations of the cross,” one of the guys said. They looked more like tomb markers to me. Aside from its historical value, the cave, apparently, also has spiritual significance.

Most Philippine mountains, for that matter, have some sort of supernatural story attached to it. Natives still consider mountains to be the lair of spirits, Christian or otherwise. Animistic and pagan beliefs have somehow survived despite the hegemony of Catholicism. In fact, these beliefs have made Christianity more colorful in this part of the world. With its schizophrenic mix of superstitions, voodoo magic, amulet powers, self flagellation, and devotion to the obscurest saints, Catholicism in the Philippines is a perfect case for socio-cultural studies. Due to their mysterious air that provides a perfect backdrop to supernatural phenomona, mountains have become sites of spiritual and religious activities. They even have legends that usually explain how they got their names. Mount Manalmon is not exempt from this. Seeing our interest, Mang Carling eagerly regaled us with the legend of Mount Manalmon.

It got its name from the Tagalog word lamon (to devour). Legend has it that a hunter, after having shot a white deer (or a goat, I don't really remember), was suddenly sucked in by solid rock. He got buried up to his knees. His relatives were told that he could only be saved by pouring a concoction of lime and betelnut juice around his knees. A local healer told them to prepare this concoction in very precise proportions. Due to lack of betelnut juice, however, the man's relatives diluted the liquid with water. And so, when they poured it around the poor man, the rock got mad and completely devoured him alive. Thus, the name.

That night, we witnessed a supposedly “supernatural” occurrence. While busy discussing the travails of Boy Bastos and his horny cohorts, we heard a faint, thumping music. It sounded like it was coming from some distant, tawdry bar where pot-bellied old farts are given to boisterous, terribly off-key karaoke singing and wanton drinking. The sound lingered for quite a while and we promptly forgot about it.

The next day, Mang Carling, asked us if we had heard the music the night before. We all replied to the affirmative. “We call it bandang gala (wandering band),” he explained. “Every night, we hear their music. Sometimes it comes from the west, sometimes from the east, sometimes from there,” he pointed to a distant forested area where no human settlements are known to exist. “If you had listened closely, you would have noticed that the music is old-fashioned, quite unlike what you hear on the radio today,” he added.

“It sounded more like disco music to me,” Glenna said. Whatever it was, I was not convinced that it was some sort of ghost Beatles having a gig up and down the rugged terrain. It was hard enough to climb this mountain with backpacks, let alone with a drum set.

The real music that night came from our tent. Eric, Glenna, and I were lying on our back, our feet wrapped in plastic bags to keep them dry. I was dreaming of apple juice with celery and cabbage while that blasted root on my back was giving me high-grade scoliosis. Out of the blue, Glenna started a heartful rendition of an extremely popular 80s ditty:

“YC bikini briefs
for the man who packs a wallop
YC packs action
YC packs fashion
YC packs beauty in motion
YC is for you!
YC bikini briefs
YC bikini briefs
YC bikini briefs”

Then, I requested that we sing something that was closer to my heart:

“Seiko, seiko wallet
Ang wallet na maswerte
Balat nito ay genuine
International pa ang mga design...”

After that, we launched into an unforgettable interpretation of “Si Filimon, si Filimon.” I had wanted to sing Yakult's jingle (“Yan ang diwa ng Yakult, syang tunay na diwa ng Yakult”) but none of them knew the words. Now that's something that could shame even the best bandang gala (wandering band) Mount Manalmon had to offer.

I don't remember having slept that night, thanks to that fucking root. But of course, Glenna and Eric thought otherwise. When I told Glenna that I felt I hadn't slept at all, all I got was a crisp “Bwaka nang ina mo!” (roughly translated, that's “Fuck you!”). My snore, apparently, could be heard as far as Mount Nabio, the other peak.

That night ended with us fantasizing about Ace Water Spa's water jets massaging our bare skin. I guess you already know where we all trooped to as soon as we got back to Manila.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

at the grocer's

I went to the grocer's with my parents last Saturday. I'm not really the type of person who finds joy in this mundane activity, let alone do it with my parents. But let me explain how I ended up doing that.

I've had a fever for a week, with the added treat of some gooey phlegm scratching up and down my throat. I didn't exactly toss and turn in my undies in bed like what I did the last time I got sick. It's less dramatic this time. I didn't even stop working. I was only absent for a day, when the fever reached uncomfortable heights. That was just it.

My mother finally managed to drag me to see a doctor in this rundown private hospital downtown that reminded me of a butcher's shop. When I whined about the hospital's unplastered walls, grimy tiles, and ugly nurses, my mother retorted that we no longer live in Manila. If I wanted the best hospitals, I needed to travel all the way down the mountain. This medical facility was the best this city has to offer.

Since I was just an outpatient, we went straight to the emergency room whose appearance alone was enough to make me develop hemorrhoid. Or maybe that was the whole point. The place was designed to make you feel worse. The more sick you are, the thicker the owners' wallets become. It makes perfect sense, really.

While waiting for my turn inside the emergency room, I was approached by an intern who shoved a thermometer up my right armpit. The butcher, er, the doctor was prescribing some meds to a young mother and her whole brood. Apparently, they all got sick at the same time. Damn this season. And so I waited, rolling my eyes up the ceiling and down on the floor and up again, fighting the urge to scratch my armpit which was increasingly becoming itchy by the minute. I wonder how many armpits---both hairy and waxed---this mercury-filled tube had explored before the intern unceremoniously stuck it into my sorry armpit. I didn't even know they still use such crude medieval thermometers in hospitals these days. I know they have high-tech pointed thingies which they stick into your ears and then it registers your body temperature in less than two seconds. But anyway, I was sick. A few armpit hair lice from strangers wouldn't have mattered, really.

Pasted on the wall was a huge, computer-printed sign which said “This hospital is declared the most healthy [sic] in the whole province by the governor [sic].” I read it again. And again. And again. I was trying to figure out what it meant exactly but its grammatical structure made me sick all the more; it felt like a catheter was being forced up my nostril. The mercury in my thermometer must've gone up two notches higher. So I stopped trying to make mental semantic analysis. If I had stayed there two hours more, I would've had irreparable brain damage. Not that I don't have it yet.

There were three interns standing beside the doctor, intently watching her as she scribbled generic names for her patients. I wonder how many interns that hospital needs for a major operation, or better yet, how many people they need to screw a light bulb in place.

When it was already my turn, the doctor asked standard questions while filling out a form. She then suggested urinalysis and blood test. She gave me a piece of brown paper and sent me off to their laboratory, which looked a lot more presentable than the emergency room. It was as inviting as a jail warden's office. It wasn’t much but it was, at least, less sickening than the emergency room with its huge grammatically-challenged sign. After handing in my urine sample and extending my right hand for her to prick, I was advised to return after an hour for the results.

I immediately dragged my mother out of the place. Let's go somewhere less suffocating, I said, let's go to the grocer's, the wet market, the butcher's shop, any place that's far from this hospital.

That's how I ended up at the grocer's.